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June 24
2018

ISSUE

Summer 2018

Unifying the Marvel VFX Universe in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

By TREVOR HOGG

A decision was made to have a thick volume of clouds above the Wakanda battlefield that could be used to justify the ever-changing weather conditions in Atlanta. (Photo: Film Frame) (All images © 2018 Marvel Studios)

A decade after Iron Man launched the Marvel CinematicUniverse in 2008, the collection of characters from 18 movies comes together with a two-part Avengers storyline that commences with Infinity War.

Overseeing the massive production that involves a cast of over 65 characters are filmmaking siblings Joe and Anthony Russo. “We were tuned into what the MCU was doing from the first film as well as being lifelong fans of the comics,” notes Anthony Russo, who spoke for the duo. “We’ve been on a four-movie journey with our screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that started with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, evolved into Captain America: Civil War and then into Avengers: Infinity War [and its sequel].”

Originally, the plan was to shoot both Avengers movies at the same time. “During prep we felt that it would be better for everybody to focus on a single story at a single time, shoot that and then move on to the second one,” explains Russo. “It became too complex to be moving back and forth. We didn’t want things to get blurred between the two films.” Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel are linked narratively but are also able to stand on their own. Another factor taken into consideration was that Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel will be released before the sequel. “Those stories were taken into account when mapping out the second film.”

Marvel Studios’ team, consisting of Executive Vice President, Physical Production Victoria Alonso, Visual Effects Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw and Visual Effects Producer Jen Underdahl, worked closely with the Russos to ensure that the digital augmentation and live action have a uniform look. “They take the lead from how  we like to physically execute things,” notes Russo. “You have to plan extensively especially when you’re dealing with a team this big where you have artists located around the world doing work on your film. However, we’re not making a piece of previs but a film, so you have to be able to appreciate what is being offered at the moment and figure out how do you use that to make the best movie that you can make.”

There were six weeks of pre-production before principal photography commenced on January 23, 2017 at Pinewood Atlanta Studios. “The script was going through changes as we were in prep, so that was a moving target for everybody,” notes Trent Opaloch, who has served as the cinematographer for all of the Marvel movies directed by the Russos. A three-week break occurred between the two productions, with the sequel commencing on August 10, 2017.

“Once [editor] Jeffrey Ford got to the point where he needed Joe and I in the edit room while we were still shooting the second movie,” explains Russo, “we made a decision to shoot 10-hour days instead of traditional 12-hour days in order to have more time after wrapping to spend in the edit room on a daily basis.”

Whereas Captain America: The Winter Soldier drew inspiration from 1970s conspiracy thrillers, Infinity War was viewed as an epic heist revolving around a supreme alien being, Thanos (Josh Brolin), trying to steal all of the Infinity Stones to rebalance the universe by annihilating half of the entire population. “It gave us an organizing principle to based the film on in a stylistic or thematic or textured level,” notes Russo. “That concept came from the idea of us thinking of Thanos as the central character. We worked hard on his introduction scene. It was designed early on in the process and the rest of the film was built on that.”

In between takes of the mocap performance of Josh Brolin were placed onto the animation rig for Thanos, resulting in the character being able to express a wide range of emotions. (Photo: Film Frame)

Whenever possible, the actual actor was used rather than their CG counterpart, such as Tom Holland as Spider-Man. (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick)

Robert Downey Jr. wore an LED RT to simulate the interactive light generated by the arc reactor situated in his chest. (Photo: Film Frame)

“We kept the mocap running and recording in between the takes when Josh [Brolin] was not being the supreme emperor of the universe, but more of a thoughtful introspective character. Those were the lines picked for our tests because if we were able to get those subtle performances onto the Thanos model, then we were in a good spot to replicate whatever Josh Brolin came up with.”

—Dan DeLeeuw, VFX Supervisor, Marvel Studios

“Thanos had to work or there was no movie,” observes DeLeeuw. “He’s a huge driving force in Infinity War, and [there are] more surprises to come in the sequel. We wanted to capture Josh Brolin’s performance as efficiently as possible and did some early mocap tests. The directors worked with him just on the character and selected different pages from the script. The thought was to mocap those line reads and put them into the animation rig to see what we came up with for Thanos. We kept the mocap running and recording in between the takes when Josh was not being the supreme emperor of the universe, but more of a thoughtful, introspective character. Those were the lines picked for our tests, because if we were able to get those subtle performances onto the Thanos model, then we were in a good spot to replicate whatever Josh Brolin came up with.”

“There are definitely a lot of CG characters, but with Spider-Man being a normal-sized human being, it was perfectly appropriate that [Spider-Man actor] Tom Holland be described by his personality and [normal human] movement,” remarks DeLeeuw. “When eight-foot tall Thanos interacts with Gamora [who is the height of Zoe Saldana, who plays the character] we had to put Josh Brolin up on a deck so that their eyeline would work. It was important to us that the actors could look into each other’s eyes. We knew that there would be a lot of repairing of the backgrounds to paint out all of the decking that Josh was standing on, but what you got was this awesome performance between two actors.”

One of the joys of the production was the ‘strange alchemy’ created by bringing the four corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. (Photo: Film Frame)
Custom lenses subsequently named Ultra Panatars were built from the ground up by Panavision to accommodate the needs of cinematographer Trent Opaloch. (Photo: Film Frame)

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in Avengers: Infinity War. “The Russos shoot action in a character-driven, narrative way,” notes the film’s editor, Jeff Ford. (Photo: Film Frame)

Thanos is the central character and his introductory scene laid the foundation for the storytelling. (Photo: Film Frame)

Scenes with the Guardians of the Galaxy characters have deep color saturation and dynamics because they go through some crazy environments. (Photo: Film Frame)

DeLeeuw believes that the production would make for a great case study. “It’s about five volumes thick! We have learned a lot about doing a couple of films together, and no matter how big you think that they’re going to be when you start, they’re only going to get bigger by the end.” In order to handle the workload that involved creating postvis for Infinity War while producing previs for the sequel, a much bigger team was needed. Advance preparation was critical when developing the CG assets. “We had to plan ahead for big characters like Thanos. We would look to develop different effects or technological concepts to understand how they should be positioned to shoot, knowing that we would do cleanup on them later on in post.”

Thirteen vendors were recruited to handle the film’s 2,500 visual effects shots. “There are definitely shared shots,” states DeLeeuw. “Just like casting an actor for a role in a film, you cast visual effects companies for the characters they’re creating. We’ve got Weta Digital and Digital Domain working on Thanos. Then Thanos will interact with other CG characters that are shared with ILM or Framestore or Method Studios. The difficulties are more to do with tracking and keeping everything in line with the look in the shared shots.” Heavy simulation work has been produced by Weta Digital and ILM. “It’s an atmospheric show and that was part of Charles Wood’s production design. It’s the visceral feeling of the landscape with smoke, dust, rain and sparks floating around.”

“I sit down with Dan DeLeeuw and Gerardo Ramirez [Previs/Postvis Supervisor at The Third Floor] to work out what we want to have in the frame, usually based on a previous previsualization or concept art or storyboard,” explains Ford. “We work together to add images to the plate work and keep refining until the vendors take over to make the shots beautiful and give them photoreal qualities.”

“Definitely we were dealing with more non-practical locations on this film than we have on the previous two,” notes Russo. “But we put a lot of time and thought into what those worlds are before getting to the execution phase so that we have all of the details worked out. Charles Wood is a brilliant production designer and even though we are working in fantastical environments he provides us with a lot of tools that the camera can use for framing, the actors can use for their blocking, and we as directors can use to sort everything out.”

A variety of places are showcased in Infinity War. “We had a wall of the different places that we would visit in the film, with each of them having their style and color,” remarks DeLeeuw. “We shot plates or texture stills in order to be able to recreate that environment based on what was captured on the stage or in the areas around the studio in Atlanta.”

Atmospherics such as smoke, dust, rain and sparks interacting with the landscape were part of the production design devised by Charles Wood. (Photo: Film Frame)

Robert Downey Jr. wears an Iron Man bust with an LED RT controlled by dimmers, which were turned on and off to conserve battery power. “We would be constantly referring back to [Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor] Swen Gillberg about whether or not he wanted interactive light for a specific gag, and if we did what level of detail should there be,” remarks Opaloch. “It is hard to determine on these movies what the end result will want to be when we’re shooting because things change. If there’s a big lighting event that happens like an explosion, we would almost always do a plate shot to capture that. It could be used as an actual element in the composite, or as a reference for the artists. We try to do a general interaction on the actor’s face that allows it to be perfectly sync’d up with the final version.”

Lighting equipment consisted of HMIs, tungsten and LEDs. “Dimmer board operator Scott Barnes helped gaffer Jeff Murrell and I to design the lighting schemes and plans to create otherworldly effects for when they were up in space, on another planet, or going through some crazy event happening here on Earth,” remarks Opaloch. “One of the biggest challenges that we had was lighting up Edinburgh [Scotland] at night. They used to heat the buildings with a lot of coal fires, so there is a thick black soot that covers everything and absorbs the light. We had hundreds of SkyPanels and an extensive pre-light schedule just to be able to see anything in that shot at night. We were lighting from the rooftop of a hotel located next to the Edinburgh train station. It was myself, Jeff Murrell and the electric team remotely casting whatever color light we wanted on the entire city. That was impressive to see.”

A close partnership has developed between the stunts, special effects and visual effects departments. “We have all worked together since Winter Soldier,” notes DeLeeuw. “The conversation is more about what can you do to hide whatever wires or pads that they needed to work with the stunt person. The special effects have gotten interesting with [Special Effects Supervisor] Dan Sudick; whereas there are the traditional things with the explosions, wirework and rigging, a big part of his job is fabrication. Dan has a machine shop that can cut all of the sheets of aluminum, wood, and foam so anything we ask him to build he can construct for us. Dan fabricated us a Thanos torso that he cut out of foam based on our CG model, made a cast and created a rubberized version that Josh Brolin could wear. It was the craziest looking thing with Brolin’s arms sticking out of the side, but it enabled characters to walk up and touch him in a realistic way.”

850 hours of footage were captured for the back-to-back production, with six to eight weeks of additional photography for scenes that were reinstated for the sequel to Infinity War. (Photo: Film Frame)

“On Winter Soldier, we worked hard with Markus and McFeely in pre-production to make sure that the script was exactly what we were going to execute,” notes Russo. “There’s a remarkable consistency between the production draft, what we shot, the first edit, and what came out. These movies are different in the sense that we’re dealing with more characters and storylines, so we had more choices to make in terms of how the stories were woven together.”

The visual spectacle doesn’t overshadow the importance of the characters. “Joe and I have always been actor-oriented as directors. We’re sensitive to what performers do, and look for the nuances in that to help guide us in our storytelling. As much as the action excites us to choreograph, execute and conceive, the heart of these films is always the character work, and that’s where we put the most time and effort, and get the most thrill from.”

The biggest challenge for Avengers: Infinity War was the size of the cast. “There are so many high-level actors working in the film that making sure they were available when we needed them was complicated,” notes Russo. “The value of it is that we get to have a cast the likes of which has never been seen before in a movie. After being teased for so long in the MCU, the introduction of Thanos is a special scene for us.”

While the 2,500 visual effects shots were in post-production for Infinity War, previs needed to be created for the sequel, which was still shooting. (Photo: Film Frame)

Numerous on-set props were replaced digitally, but were critical in providing believable interaction with actors. (Photo: Film Frame)

Thanos is on mission to collect all of the Infinity Stones, including the Mind Stone found in the forehead of Vision. (Photo: Film Frame)

Never one to stop inventing and revising, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gives his Iron Man suit yet another upgrade. (Photo: Film Frame)

DeLeeuw is pleased with the range of performance that has been achieved with Thanos, including menace, sadness and anger. “We’ve got the big battles and a lot of the things that we’re famous for. However, we also have this incredibly evil character who is sympathetic. In some ways you’re almost rooting for the villain! One of the considerations for the show was how to marry all of the four corners of the Marvel Universe in what the directors would call ‘strange alchemy.’” DeLeeuw adds, “There is nothing small in Infinity War. Everybody gets a moment to shine, and all of the sequences are great.”


Read about the visual effects of the epic “Battle on Titan” in Avengers: Infinity War here

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